The city of Vaughan, Ontario – bulldoze it and start fresh? Photo by Gord Price (see "Vaughan").
The slogan for the city of Vaughan is "the City Above Toronto". This uninspiring slogan can only be a geographical reference (it is indeed north of Toronto) and certainly not one of comparative righteousness or moral rectitude. At least not when it comes to municipal politics.
When I was a kid, you only went to Vaughan for Canada's Wonderland. Flanking highway 400, there were acres of farmland, punctuated with a big papier-mâché "mountain", soaring roller coasters and hectares of parking.
Today, Vaughan is a sprawling mess of sameness. Cookie-cutter houses and Mattamy McMansions, all roads and little public transit, big box stores and nowhere to walk. It's a bedroom community for Toronto, where every morning kilometers of cars idle on the 400, inching along, spending hours to travel to and from the big city.
But there's more to Vaughan than its rampant consumerism, addiction to growth, and milquetoast facade. Vaughan's municipal political scene is bizarre, possibly corrupt, and serves as an example of why municipal campaign finance reform is critical (get a big cup of coffee and read my post from a few weeks ago on municipal finance reform).
Last week, the Star reported that former Vaughan mayor Michael Di Biase is charged with 27 counts of alleged election finance "irregularities" including: "accepting cash from people not entitled to donate; failing to ensure contributions went to a campaign account; failing to ensure expenses were paid from campaign account; failing to keep proper records."
Current mayor, Linda Jackson, faces 68 allegations, including: "overspending; failing to ensure contributions went to a campaign account; failing to ensure that contributions of goods and services were valued in accordance with law; failing to keep proper records."
Councillor Bernie DiVona is accused of 44 accounts and stepped down as the head of the budget committee. According to an audit of DiVona's expenses, he used campaign funds to purchase a $1,710 espresso machine and $3,000 for work on his Woodbridge home.
Prior to this was an ugly municipal campaign full of dirty tricks and outrageous behaviour that saw Jackson squeak by with 90 votes. Her victory has been a Pyrrhic one and was contested by former mayor Michael Di Biase, who demanded recounts and initiated court action, accruing $576,431 in lawyer fees and costs.
If convicted, Di Biase will be barred from running in the next election and Jackson could be removed from office. Vaughan city council has allowed the charges to proceed.
Earlier this week, Vaughan's Task Force on Democratic Participation and Renewal released a report two-years-in-the-making that seeks to invigorate citizen interest in municipal government. Certainly, allegations of corruption at the highest levels in municipal government can sour voters.
So among the 19 recommendations from the Task Force are improvements to the way campaign cash is raised and spent, such as municipal tax rebates for individual campaign donations and donor list disclosure offered before election-day.
Vaughan must consider any proposal that washes the corrupt stink hanging over its city hall. Until then, voters will be disengaged; and that would be a shame for a city that desperately needs its citizens' voices.